Endangering the safety net

The news that Douglas County has been spending federal safety-net dollars on lobbying for the timber industry should prompt Congress to tighten rules for the program, if it's reauthorized.

A story in The Oregonian, reprinted in Friday's Mail Tribune, explains that Douglas County commissioners paid nearly half a million dollars in the past two years to Communities for Healthy Forests, a nonprofit organization. About half that money was to make videos.

The first such video is running on the website and Facebook page of another nonprofit, Portland-based Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, connected to the timber industry lobbying group American Forest Resource Council. The video advocates for salvage logging in the wake of wildfires, and urges viewers to tell their elected officials to support it.

The timber industry also supports salvage logging. So does Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who introduced a bill to promote salvage logging of trees burned in the Columbia Gorge this summer — one day after the video appeared online. The executive director of Communities for Healthy Forests says he had no idea Walden's bill would drop the day after the video appeared. 

The point is not whether salvage logging is good or bad. Arguments can be made on both sides. The problem is that Douglas County spent taxpayers' dollars in an attempt to influence federal forest policy — dollars that were intended to compensate the county for lost timber revenue.

It's also worth noting that Douglas County lost tremendous amounts of that revenue when federal timber harvests declined. County leaders there must scramble for every available dollar to keep county services afloat.

But that's all the more reason to make sure federal assistance payments go where they are most needed. Like to schools, not to make pro-logging videos.

The money is part of millions Douglas County has received from Secure Rural Schools, a program started in 2000 coauthored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Most of the money is dedicated to roads and schools, but Douglas County commissioners say money under Title III of the program allows counties to spend money on "education related to forestry" — although the law said it was to be limited to after-school programs.

Only Title III money appropriated before 2008 can be used for such "education," but Douglas County supposedly still had pre-2008 safety-net dollars available to pay for a lobbying video in 2015 and 2016. It's remarkable that the county hung onto that much money for eight years or more, given the dire state of its finances.

This isn't the first time Title III dollars have been spent for questionable purposes, but every time it happens it gives Congress another excuse not to reauthorize the program. And that could hurt every timber county in Oregon.


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